Harvard reverses decision, will offer Kenneth Roth fellowship

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  January 19, 2023

Amid widespread criticism, Harvard Kennedy School has reversed its decision to deny Ken Roth a fellowship, but questions remain.

The Harvard Kennedy School announced that it plans to offer a fellowship to former Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth.

The school has faced widespread criticism over an article published by Michael Massing in The Nation detailing how Roth had been recruited for the fellowship before allegedly being denied the position over his criticisms of Israel. A professor at the school told Massing that Dean Douglas Elmendorf openly admitted that the fellowship was pulled over Roth’s “anti-Israel bias.”

Massing’s article details the school’s longstanding connections to the military-industrial complex and identifies a number of its pro-Israel donors. These include Thomas Kaplan, Leslie Wexner, Idan and Batia Ofer, and Robert and Renee Belfer.

In an email to the Kennedy School community Elmendorf says he made an “error” in rescinding Roth’s fellowship, but offers few details explaining why that decision was made. He does insist that donor influence had nothing to do with the move.

“First let me emphasize that my decision was not influenced by donors. Donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters,” it reads. “My decision also was not made to limit debate at the Kennedy School about human rights in any country. As a community we are steadfastly committed to free inquiry and including a wide range of views on public policy, and the appointment of a Fellow is never an endorsement of the views of that individual nor a refutation of other views. My decision on Mr. Roth last summer was based on my evaluation of his potential contributions to the School.”

The email does not specifically mention Israel at any point.

Roth has released a statement saying he is “thrilled” in “grateful” about the reversal. However, he also notes that Elmendorf’s announcement lacks transparency and that he remains worried about academic freedom at the school.

“It’s great that this happened. But it happened, in part, because it’s harder to cancel people like Ken Roth, who are Jewish rather than Palestinian,” noted Jewish Currents editor Peter Beinart on Twitter. “Palestinians are the greatest victims of this kind of exclusion. The goal must be universities that no longer cancel them.”

In April 2021, when Roth was still at the helm of Human Rights Watch, the organization released a 213-page report detailing Israel’s “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

“These policies, which grant Jewish Israelis the same rights and privileges wherever they live and discriminate against Palestinians to varying degrees wherever they live, reflect a policy to privilege one people at the expense of another,” said Roth at the time.

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss